Swimming for pain relief

June 1, 2020

a woman swimming for pain reliefIf you have chronic pain, especially back pain, one recommendation you may have heard is that swimming will be a great activity for you. The summer months are the perfect time to try out swimming for pain relief. But why is this such a good type of activity, and what’s the relationship between swimming and chronic pain? 

Swimming is a type of low impact aerobic conditioning exercise that’s easy on the back and especially good for the spine. Unlike running, swimming causes very little impact on your spine structures. This is because the water supports your body, and the buoyancy relieves stress on all joints of the body. With less gravity affecting joints, swimming and other types of water exercise help the spine and limbs expand, which relieves painful pressure.

Why swimming is good for pain relief

When you struggle with chronic back pain, you may initially feel like resting and avoiding exercise is best. However, this is actually one of the worst things you can do. Too much rest can cause the muscles that support the lower back to weaken, and disuse syndrome may result. 

Swimming is a great form of exercise if you suffer from pain in your back, joints, or musculoskeletal pain. Whether you do slow strokes, move around with a flotation device, tread water, or do water aerobics, it will all be beneficial in these ways:

  • Improves cardiovascular health
  • Increases stamina
  • Helps build more muscle strength
  • Improves flexibility
  • Helps build stronger muscles in the back, shoulders, legs, and core
  • Improves balance
  • Helps with coordination
  • Improves posture

An older but still significant study from 2009 published in Spine Journal examined how swimming exercises could help with chronic back pain. The study found that water exercises improved disabilities and quality of life better than other types of exercise performed outside of the water. Several other studies have shown swimming to be more effective for improving symptoms of arthritis and fibromyalgia patients than other forms of exercise.

Swimming exercises for pain relief

If you plan to undertake a totally new type of physical activity, such as swimming this summer (or anytime), we ask that you talk with us about your plans first. We want to make sure you are clear for this type of activity and provide any guidance we can. 

We may be able to make recommendations about the types of water exercises that will be best for you or get you in touch with a physical therapist who can help. Types of water activities often recommended include:

  1. Walking in the water —  While you may not technically be swimming, walking around the pool can be very helpful. The resistance of the water will help build up your muscles, especially if you swing your arms while walking.
  2. Water aerobics — Aerobics in the water works a variety of muscles while also building your flexibility.
  3. Swimming laps — It’s important to start slow, maybe for only a short time a couple of times a week. Different types of strokes work a variety of muscles in your hips, chest, and back. Swim coaches can give you tips on the proper technique, if necessary, to make sure your form and technique are correct. 
  4. Employ a pool noodle — Noodles can be helpful tools for those who may not feel as comfortable in the water. A popular option is to sit on the noodle upright, then gently use your arms and legs to move across the pool. This is a great way to enjoy the benefits of swimming in a very low impact way.

Typically, people start slowly with swimming, find that they really enjoy it, and progress up to higher levels of activity. It’s often a type of physical activity people come to love, and one they can do with children and other family members, which makes swimming an all-around great option for many people who suffer from chronic pain.